Leeches! Leeches!! Leeches!!! A small collection of vintage advertisements for medical leeches

Business card for Mr and Mrs Bese cuppers and leechers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 19th century.

Business card for cuppers and leechers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 19th century. Via Life As A Human.

Leeches! Leeches!! Leeches!!! An excitable ad for fresh leeches from the Wanganui Dispensary. Wanganui Herald, 11 September 1867, pg 3.

Leeches! Leeches!! Leeches!!! An excitable ad for fresh leeches from the Wanganui Dispensary. Wanganui Herald, 11 September 1867, pg 3. Via New Zealand National Library’s Papers Past.

Leeches have been used for bloodletting for centuries, becoming so popular in the 18th and 19th centuries that they were almost farmed to extinction in Europe. Although falling out of fashion in the later half of the 20th century, their medical use is making a comeback in microsurgery and reconstructive surgery due to the anti-coagulant properties of their secretions, which is useful for reducing blood clots and venous pressure from pooling blood, and for healing skin grafts. (Read more about medical leeches in this useful BBC article.)

But despite their usefulness, it still must have been an awful challenge to make leeches attractive advertising fare. They are essentially little vampires shaped like long black boogers, which suction onto your skin and suck your blood out. I can think of few things less appealing. I think these vintage advertisements are remarkable in the ways they’ve each tackled the problem, from the elegant botanical illustrations to the generous use of exclamation points which make ‘Leeches! Leeches!! Leeches!!!’ sound more like an exciting carnival ride than a slimy, parasitic worm that wants to drink your blood.

An invoice for 57 choice leeches from Fitch and Nottingham in London, sold to Swindon businessman Mr John Green, 12 May 1870

An invoice for 57 choice leeches from Fitch & Nottingham in London, sold to Swindon businessman Mr John Green, 12 May 1870. Swindon Collection, Central Library (via Flickr).

Leeches! Leeches! Advertisement for Fitch and Nottingham Leech Breeders in London, England. 19th century.

Leeches! Leeches! Advertisement for Fitch and Nottingham Leech Breeders in London, England. 19th century. Via Jane Austen’s World.

Metal pharmacy sign advertising a range of wares, including leeches, England, 19th century.

Metal pharmacy sign advertising a range of wares, England, 19th century. Via Wellcome Collection images.

Ad for leeches in the Brooklyn City Directory, 1840-1841

Ad for leeches in the Brooklyn City Directory, 1840-1841. Via the Brooklyn Public Library.

Bloodletting with leeches. From a text by Guillaume van den Bossche appearing on page 431 ofHistoria medica, in qua libris IV. animalium natura, et eorum medica utilitas esacte and uculenter (Brussels: Joannis Mommarti, 1639).

Bloodletting with leeches. From a text by Guillaume van den Bossche appearing on page 431 of Historia medica, in qua libris IV. animalium natura, et eorum medica utilitas esacte & luculenter (Brussels: Joannis Mommarti, 1639). Image via Jane Austen’s World.

Ad for Hungarian and Swedish leeches from Syme's Drug and Chemical Store in New Orleans, printed in The Daily Delta, 9 January 1852. Cabildo Museum

Ad for Hungarian and Swedish leeches from Syme’s Drug and Chemical Store in New Orleans, printed in The Daily Delta, 9 January 1852. Cabildo Museum (via Wikimedia Commons).

// Images via: The Brooklyn Public Library; Wellcome Collection;  National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past; Life As A Human; Swindon Collection Central Library, via Flickr; Cabildo Museum via Wikimedia Commons Jane Austen’s World.

A special thanks to Dr Robert Kirk at the University of Manchester, for identifying the ‘Bloodletting with Leeches’ image above. Dr Kirk is currently undertaking a fascinating research project on the cultural history of the leech, and I encourage anyone with an interest in this topic to check out a brief but riveting survey of his work here.

 

Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:

19th century papier-mâché anatomical model of a worker bee made by Dr. Louis Thomas Jerôme Auzoux

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18 thoughts on “Leeches! Leeches!! Leeches!!! A small collection of vintage advertisements for medical leeches

  1. Wow, this is amazing. I’ve read a little about the uses of leeches in medicine, and even about the current reappraisal of their usefulness, but I had no idea there was this sort of advertising. So fascinating! I’m especially amused by the invoice for “choice” leeches (if we shudder to think of using leeches, imagine using substandard ones), and the ad for Swedish and Hungarian leeches imported to New Orleans, as if their European provenance made them more effective or classier or something. By the way, I was startled by the idea of a cargo of leeches making an ocean voyage, so I just looked up the life span of a leech, and apparently it can live for years. I had no idea. Just to add to the ick factor, I’ll mention that I once read a murder mystery which included a man being drugged and placed in a bathtub full of leeches. :-)

  2. Great post, and with some superb images that I shamelessly stole for a presentation I’m doing for nurse prescribers.

  3. Can you please supply the source–archival collection or library–of the “Mr. & Mrs. Bese” trade card or advert? Am most eager to track this down! Thanks–

  4. I love you post and this is new to me though leeches is bloodsucker and I didn’t know they used this in the field of medicine..Thanks for sharing it ^^

  5. I love your post and this is new to me though leeches is bloodsucker and I didn’t know they used this in the field of medicine..Thanks for sharing it ^^

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  15. This is super. I work on Victorian Parasites so this sort of thing is right up my street! I’d be interested to look into the culture of medical advertising. I’ve seen some adverts for amulets that supposedly ward off parasitic disease!

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